MerchCarnival is an online shopping platform that connects fans to Caribbean culture and the Carnival experience. Let’s get to know the Caribbean American entrepreneur behind the brand.
Tell us about yourself
Hello! My name is Ashleé Douglas and I am the owner of MerchCarnival, recent Master’s graduate, and a lover of storytelling.
I was born and raised in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. My mother was born in Trinidad, my dad was born in Dominica, and I have family in Bermuda. My friends often joke that I am the human representation of CARICOM.
Now that I’ve completed my masters, I have gotten back to my hobbies: crafting, photography, and baking. Ultimately, I see myself continuing with MerchCarnival and as a freelancer focusing on Branding and PR needs.
What inspired you to start MerchCarnival?
MerchCarnival is the embodiment of my love for everything Caribbean. When I went off to Philly for undergrad, I experienced a huge culture shock and for the first year I was very homesick (I still am to tell you the truth). The positive thing that came out of this adjustment period was that I developed a deeper love for home in the Virgin Islands, and a greater appreciation of Caribbean culture at large. The food, the music, the fete’in, just the overall vibes is something unique to the region and something I hold very close and dear to my heart.
My business began as a hobby/one-off project back in 2011. I had the idea to make some money during the winter break to sell Virgins Islands snapbacks, so I made 36 hats, 18 Navy and 18 Red. Over the break, I sold all of them and people kept asking for them. So I set up a Storenvy site (similar to Etsy) and sold them under AD Designs (my initials, not very catchy). MerchCarnival was officially started in May 2014 as an apparel and accessories brand.
Today, MerchCarnival is an online curated marketplace of Caribbean-made and Caribbean-inspired goods. It not only features my designs, but products from other Caribbean designers as well. I’m really into the #shoplocal and #shopsmall concepts and wanted to support fellow designers and brands in the Caribbean or of Caribbean heritage, and help them reach their audiences, especially in the U.S. Currently, I accept brands to sell on my website, as well as source products.
One thing you wish you knew before becoming an entrepreneur?
Scaling (haha). At the beginning, I didn’t have any data to determine what was going to sell or not, how much inventory I needed, what sizes in apparel sold the most, etc. And I made some mistakes (I have old t-shirt designs to prove it). There isn’t much information on the Caribbean consumer, so sometime it’s difficult to analyze the market, which makes it slightly more difficult. But with my growing audience online, influencers, and with the help of my friends who I consider “The MerchCarnival Customer” I’ve been able to gain more insight and I know do research on what’s trending (styles, accessories, colors) for the next season to decide on what I need to focus on. Also, being in business in for the past two years I have reports that show when my busy season is and when my low season is so I can answer the questions that I was clueless about before.
What advice would you give to anyone trying to start this type of business or business in general?
Strategy is critical in starting on the right path. From understanding who your target audience is, budget, inventory, what your brand is, and so much more. I think sometimes folks can get stuck on the present details and are so excited to start their business and to make that first sale, but there’s a lot of moves that you need to make before that first sale happens. So always having a strategy and a plan is key to start the business and it’s help its longevity.
What’s the best and the most challenging part of running MerchCarnival?
The best part about running MerchCarnival is being able to see my vision come to life and how that story connects with customers. I not only enjoy making the products, but hearing about how folks love the products, the brand, and my celebration of Caribbean culture confirm that this is something worth doing.
The most challenging part, I would say is space. I’ve been living on a ‘broke’ college student budget for the past 2 years going to school full-time, so my apartment is on the smaller side to save money. MerchCarnival has taken over my living room. It’s basically not a living room, it’s the MerchCarnival headquarters. I’ve been able to change the space into a photo studio, storage, packaging station, and office. Which has been great, but we’re growing out of it. All this makes having guests over a tad difficult. I think I’m ready and MerchCarnival is ready to for it’s own space. So 2017, MerchCarnival will have it’s own workspace. There, into the universe it goes.
What’s the biggest lesson learnt from running your company?
Biggest lesson learnt from running my company is keeping track of everything, especially inventory, expenses, and sales. When I started off, I had an excel sheet for my finances and kept inventory in a notebook. It was going pretty well, when all I had were a few items and only did sales online. But with adding vending and an ever-growing inventory list, it was becoming difficult. I was hesitant in investing in accounting software and inventory software, but it was the best decision I made. Quickbooks and Shopify helped to combine everything. Also, separating my business finances from my personal finances was also a huge weight lifted off my shoulders, so I would encourage entrepreneurs to do that as early as possible.
How you stay inspired/motivated when you experience challenges?
My dad always says, you must have a plan for every letter of the alphabet, so I try to do just that. Sometimes I want to take on more than I can handle, collaborations fall through, or events get cancelled and for a second I get down about it because I really wanted it to work out. But having back up plans help me to solve the problem at hand and determine the next direction MerchCarnival should take.
What’s your biggest accomplishment since starting MerchCarnival?
My biggest accomplishment since starting MerchCarnival is planning and hosting a pop up shop that not only featured MerchCarnival, but fellow brand designers in the Virgin Islands. It was something that I really wanted to do. With some encouragement and help from my friends and family, we were able to pull it off. Now, “Home for the Holidays” is in its third year!
What plans that you’re looking forward to?
In the next year, I plan on expanding my vendor schedule at various Caribbean festivals/carnivals in the U.S. Since starting in 2014, I have gone from vending at 1 event to four during the summer. I’ve been able to meet people in Atlanta, Baltimore, Houston, and Raleigh and would love to continue on this track and have a much fuller summer schedule for MerchCarnival next year.
I have hosted successful pop up shops at home in St. Croix, so one of my goals is to host or co-host a pop up shop in the U.S. in the next year, so if there are any collaborators out there please hit me up.
And my 5-year goal is to open up a brick-and-mortar shop. One thing that I love about vending is meeting people face-to-face and their excitement about the products. So I would like to create a shopping experience where people can come and feel like there are “back home”
How do you define success?
I define success as happiness and progression. At the beginning of the year and every quarter, I start with writing my goals for that period (number of sales I want to make, number of followers, click-throughs etc.). At the end of the quarter, I pull reports so I can compare what my goals were and what I achieved. It builds my confidence in my entrepreneurial dreams and provides insight in how I need to improve.
And you can’t forget happiness. Having a business that I call mine provides me so much joy. I’m able to use my creativity and tell my story as a Caribbean person and my love for my home. Happiness equals positivity, and if I wasn’t approaching this business with a positive mindset, it wouldn’t be successful and I wouldn’t have made the progress that I have.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned about success and failure?
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is to be ok with rejection. I feared rejection and things not working out the way I planned. In the past, my fear of rejection has hindered me in making big decisions or taking risks. I’ve been told, whether for my business or something else I wanted, that the worst anyone can say is no. And it’s true, once you’ve faced rejection, it’s not the end of your world, it’s just time to change your strategy.
The second part of the lesson is to always have multiple back up plans, so you’re ready to bounce back quickly. I’ve been taking on that mindset, and a lot of good has come out of it. I’ve hosted my pop up shop, I’ve done collaborations, and I’ve met some great people along the way. If you don’t take the risk, how will you experience the success?
How has your Caribbean culture contributed to your success?
My Caribbean culture is the foundation of my business and my life in it’s entirety. When I think of my Caribbean culture and my upbringing, three words that come to mind are: hardworking, passionate, and happy. I bring those qualities to my work, and it has set me apart from my peers whether in a school, work, or entrepreneurial environment.
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